Victoria Mcglone

How dense breast tissue almost cost me my life – Victoria McGlone

Yes, you read that correctly. At just 37 years old, having not even heard the term “dense breast tissue” before, I found myself hearing the four words that would change my life forever. “You have breast cancer.”

I remember finding a small lump in my right breast while in the shower last year. I wouldn’t say I was doing a breast exam of any kind. I was merely washing my body with shower gel in the same way I had done thousands of times before. The lump I could feel was small – I would say pea-sized and buried deep into the middle of my breast. In hindsight, it’s a miracle I found it. When I booked an appointment with my GP to ask her to check it out, she was very quick to perform an examination, and her tone was very confident when she said, “Oh, that’s nothing, that’s just dense breast tissue – many young women have it.” Worse than this, she then proceeded to examine my other breast (which didn’t have any lumps) and tried to convince me that this breast felt the “same as the other one” because I have dense breasts. This was the first point in my story when my outcome could have been drastically different if my actions had been.

“It doesn’t feel like just breast tissue to me,” I said. “I am sure I can feel a defined lump.” The exam room went silent, and our 5 second stand-off seemed to feel like an awkward 5 hours. “OK”, she sighed, “I will give you a requisition for imaging to put your mind at rest”. And with that, I left my doctor’s office hoping that my advocacy and willingness to push for imaging was probably completely over-the-top.

The first imaging clinic I called told me that the wait for a non-urgent mammogram in Ontario was 6 months. I thought I had misheard. How can this be? Fortunately, I decided to call another clinic, who had just had a cancellation and were able to fit me in for a mammogram the following week (thank you God). Upon arrival at the clinic, I was met by a young girl who would be performing my mammogram. She was kind and professional as she set me up in the machine and got me ready for pictures. When she snapped the first image from behind the screen, I swear I could hear her gasp. I looked at her quickly and she wouldn’t make eye contact with me in return. I started to suspect something may not look right, but I desperately hoped I was wrong. After a few more images (and still no eye contact), she told me I would require an ultrasound across the hallway, and over I went. The demeanor of the ultrasound technician was similar to that of the previous imaging technician… she wouldn’t make eye contact with me and she didn’t seem to want to make any small talk about the weather or the cold ultrasound gel. In complete silence, she moved that ultrasound probe over all areas of my breast and up into my arm pit, and seemed to be snapping many measurements and images.

“All done”, she said, staring at the floor. As I returned to the changing room to get my clothes on, expecting to jump back into my car and await results in a few days time, I was met in the hallway of the clinic by an older lady in a suit jacket, holding a clip board. “Are you Victoria McGlone?” she asked, her eyes fixed on a piece of paper she was holding. “Please come with me for a moment.” I knew as she was leading me down the hallway towards what I later learned was her office, that this wasn’t good. The gasp. The lack of eye contact. The clip board. None of this screamed “just dense breast tissue” to me.

“We have found an area of concern in your right breast and in your lymph nodes, and we are referring you to the Breast Health Centre for an urgent biopsy”, she gently told me, handing me piece of paper that said “Cancer Centre Referral” in big bold letters on the top of it. “Is it cancer?” I asked, almost unable to get the words out. “We don’t know, but you will be called within 5-10 business days for a biopsy which will provide more information.”

And just like that, I drove home. I now had a strong feeling this could be something bad. It turns out that the Cancer Centre must have also shared my concern as they called me that very same afternoon to book a biopsy. Things started to feel scary and overwhelming very quickly.

The biopsy confirmed our worst fears. I had breast cancer. I was actually able to see a picture of that mammogram image (the one that the technician gasped over), and it turns out, there was a 3cm tumour that looked like a solid white golf ball sitting in my breast! It looked terrifying. I couldn’t stop thinking about my GPs words “that’s just dense breast tissue.” I felt angry that she’d been so dismissive, and I felt grateful I had the bravery to push for imaging. I didn’t push for imaging because I thought it was breast cancer…. I pushed for imaging because I wanted to rule it out.

The interesting thing I have learned about dense breast tissue is that it was hiding four other smaller tumours in the same breast that were not picked up by the mammogram. A breast MRI is what confirmed the presence of cancer in every quadrant of my right breast. I suppose my GP was partly correct…. I did have dense breasts. But the lump I was feeling deep inside my right breast was real… it was big, and it was ugly.

My biopsy confirmed I had Stage 2C, HER2+, hormone negative, invasive ductal carcinoma. I had 5 tumours in my breast in total, and it had spread to 2 lymph nodes already. The doctors took action quickly and I found myself in the chemo chair within a couple of weeks. Everything moved very fast once we received my diagnosis, and I felt I had a team of experts working tirelessly to save my life… which they did. Scans, blood work, appointments, phone calls…. Cancer quickly became my full-time job. I was living my worst nightmare, but I knew I had to fight with everything I had. I trusted my oncology team, and I asked questions and sought second opinions every step of the way.

Six rounds of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy with immediate DIEP flap reconstruction, 15 rounds of radiation and 12 months of Herceptin and I am now cancer free!

I am so thankful I pushed that day. I am so thankful that I knew my own body well enough to know that what I was feeling in my breast wasn’t “just dense breast tissue”, and I am so thankful I am here to share my story with you. If you’ve read this far and take away just one thing from my experience, I’d ask for it to be this: Be your own advocate. Push, scream, shout and don’t give up… if I had listened to my GP and not pushed for imaging… I wouldn’t be here to watch my young children grow up. Advocacy matters… your body matters… your life matters.

DBC Note: Victoria’s story evokes many emotions. There are many lessons here, but first, Victoria, heartfelt gratitude for your willingness to share your experience. Your kindness and courage are very much appreciated. We second Victoria’s message about being your own advocate. The sad thing is you should not have to be. Anyone with any symptom of breast cancer must have imaging. Our health care providers do not have X-ray vision. You cannot feel dense tissue. It can only be seen on an X-ray by the radiologist. No matter one’s age or the symptom, no health care provider can rule out cancer with their finger tips. If you have a symptom, please do not leave the office without a requisition. Your life could depend on it. Thank you Victoria for making that very clear. Please share this story to help get the word out. Thank you.